In the Democratic debate, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders — each with one nominating contest victory under their belts — looked ahead to the upcoming primaries in Nevada and South Carolina. Here are a few of the big takeaways from the debate.
1. A focus on African-American issues
Tonight’s debate might be in Wisconsin, but the candidates seemed to be looking ahead to South Carolina. In their opening statements, both Clinton and Sanders nodded to issues that concern African-American voters.
African-American voters in 2008 made up more than half of the Democratic primary voters in that state, according to exit polls. That kind of diversity is a huge change from the largely white contests in Iowa and New Hampshire. In her opening statement, Clinton mentioned discrimination against African Americans, while Sanders criticized the prison system, as well as marijuana arrests.
A later Facebook question from a Wisconsin woman further pressed the issue of incarceration, asking how the U.S. could address black men’s high rate of imprisonment. Both candidates took a similar tone: Sanders criticized “overpolicing in African-American neighborhoods.” Clinton, meanwhile, brought up the shooting of an unarmed Milwaukee man, adding that the nation needs to also fight systemic racism in areas like education.
Sanders responded, “Nothing that Secretary Clinton said do I disagree with,” adding, “at the end of my first term as president we will not have more people in jail than any other country.”
2. A debate over the size of government…and the feasibility of Sanders’ proposals
To kick off the debate, moderator Judy Woodruff started with a basic philosophical question for Sanders: how big should government be?
Sanders is running on ambitious proposals, including single-payer healthcare and tuition-free public colleges and universities. He pivoted the conversation to his healthcare plan, and what followed was a debate over whether his plan would work. Clinton criticized it as too expensive, saying that “the numbers don’t add up.”
And while Sanders reiterated a point he often makes: that “one major country on Earth that does not guarantee health care to all people,” Clinton responded with resounding pragmatism: “And we are not England. We are not France. We inherited a system that was set up during World War II.”
Likewise, they sparred over their college affordability plans. Sanders has proposed that public colleges and universities be tuition free, while Clinton has a “debt-free” plan. Sanders touted his Wall Street speculation tax as a way of funding tuition-free college. Clinton, meanwhile, said that “if you don’t have some agreement within the system from states and from families and from students, it’s hard to get to where we need to go.”
3. Reaction to the Albright controversy
Clinton was asked about former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright’s recent, controversial comment that “there’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help each other.”
Clinton toed a careful line in her answer — she didn’t criticize Albright (rather, she noted that Albright has been saying that for years), and she added that she wants women and men alike to make “the best decisions in their minds that they can make.” She also said she had heard that this was the first time a majority of the people on a primary debate stage (that is, including the moderators) have been women.
Both of them touted their credentials on issues that candidates view as important to women, like paid family leave and equal pay — issues on which they broadly agree.
Asked whether he worries about “thwarting history,” should he defeat a woman running for the presidency, Sanders said he thought he would be breaking barriers himself.
“I think, from a historical point of view, somebody with my background, somebody with my views, somebody who has spent his entire life taking on the big money interests, I think a Sanders victory would be of some historical accomplishment, as well.”
Clinton, meanwhile, said she doesn’t want people to support her because of her gender, but because she’d be “the most qualified, experienced, and ready person to be the president and the commander- in-chief.”
4. “I am proud to say that Henry Kissinger is not my friend.”
The former Secretary of State’s name popped up eight times in the transcript, nearly 40 years after he served in the office.
After an exchange over fighting terrorism and the candidates’ respective votes on authorizing force in Iraq (Sanders voted no — as he often repeats — and Clinton voted yes), Sanders criticized Clinton for having said that she had sought advice from Kissinger as Secretary of State.
“I am proud to say that Henry Kissinger is not my friend. I will not take advice from Henry Kissinger,” Sanders said, after calling Kissinger “one of the most destructive secretaries of state in the modern history of this country.”
This led to one of the sharper exchanges of the debate.
“Well, I know journalists have asked who you do listen to on foreign policy, and we have yet to know who that is,” she said.
“Well, it ain’t Henry Kissinger. That’s for sure,” responded Sanders.
Sanders’ lack of foreign policy experience is considered one of his greatest weaknesses in this campaign. On Meet the Press on Sunday, host Chuck Todd asked Sanders to name whom he’s consulting.
“I know you didn’t tell me the other night when I asked you about who your foreign policy advisors are. Give me a few names of people you would end up considering as a Secretary of State or a Secretary of Defense,” Todd said.
Sanders cited Lawrence Korb, a former assistant secretary of defense under Pres. Reagan, and Jim Zogby, president of the DC-based Arab American Institute.
Korb wrote in Politico this week that he “was surprised to hear” that Sanders named him, noting that the had only spoken to Sanders once during the senator’s presidential campaign.
However, Korb also defended Sanders.
“Since Sanders’ public mention of me, I have been asked repeatedly whether I think his foreign policy positions and experience are sound. I do,” he wrote.
5. “I agree with President Obama.”
President Obama came up an awful lot for a person who wasn’t on the stage. Clinton in particular invoked the president often, praising Obamacare, his policing task force, and his advocacy for young men, for example (though Sanders also had a few instances in which he praised the president).
Late in the debate, she reversed and attacked Sanders for past disapproving comments about Obama. In 2011, he told radio host Thom Hartmann about how “millions of Americans” saw Obama as “weak” and were “disappointed” in his leadership.
“Madam Secretary, that is a low blow,” he responded, saying that he approved of the president’s handling of the financial crisis but also admitting that he has “voiced criticisms.”
“I understand we can disagree on the path forward. But those kinds of personal assessments and charges are ones that I find particularly troubling,” Clinton said in her response.
“Well, one of us ran against Barack Obama. I was not that candidate,” he said, before giving his closing statement.